THE UNLUCKY POLITICS OF GOOD LUCK TO YOU, LEO GRANDE
90% of sex workers want to quit their job. Leo Grande is not one of them. Leo Grande is the new lover of Nancy (played by Emma Thompson), a retired widower who is determined, after a lifetime of repression, to finally have some good sex. She hires Leo (played by Daryl McCormack) and the film follows the pair over as they meet recurrently in a London hotel. Leo and Nancy navigate not only the tumultuous waters of their own relationships with sex, but of society's, reaching some seemingly fair and feel-good conclusions about how the free market should extend to sex. But between the lines of this seemingly empowering comedy-drama lies a felicitously crafted backdrop from which to present its points.
The film does a remarkably job of convincing you of its own utopia. Leo is employed by an "agency" - not a pimp, who will beat him if he doesn't make enough money, nor an online company that retains ownership over his naked photos should he quit. His client is a demure and ditzy widower who feeds him champagne and has never given a blowjob - not a larger, stronger man who has watched violent pornography since the age of 12 or encourages him to do hard drugs. Her sexual requests are never anything more exotic that sixty-nineing; even the idea of roleplay revolts her. She just wants an "adventure". The pair sit and discuss politics on the floor of a clean, safe and expensive hotel room - he is not performing in an unhygienic brothel, or an alleyway, or a bedroom who's location could be doxxed if a train passes at the wrong time. I could go on observing the discrepancies between the gritty actuality of prostitution and the shiny reverie of Good Luck, but my point stands: the film's politics are totally and utterly divorced from reality.
Similarly, the mid-film diatribe against the illegality of purchasing sex paints a very pretty but totally fallacious picture of the sex market. Leo describes sex as a human right and the people that "need" it as either lonely, misunderstood or otherwise living within the margins of society. I nudge readers towards Bettina Flitner's Johns series to see what sort of people usually provide the demand in this alleged economy of need or, if you have the stomach for it (seriously - warning for graphic descriptions of sex acts), this collection of disgruntled reviews of prostitutes from sex buyers on Lusthaus and other forums.
The term "liberal" as an insult is used - if you'll forgive me - very liberally these days, but this is a bone fide case of potentially well-meaning but ultimately useless left-leaning politics overlayed onto art. Irritatingly, there are moments where genuine and conscious analysis of the sex trade could have been made; both Leo and Nancy occasionally come incredibly close to probing deeper societal trends that influence the industry (like income and education inequality or racism). They even sometimes come close to offering solutions that protect sex workers without increasing the opportunities for them to be endangered in the first place. Sadly, this never actually happens - the right to purchase sex is touted above all else, including the right to live without having to sell it in the first play.
Indeed, according to the film, the major problem with sex work is its perception. The crux of the movie's tension occurs when Nancy reveals she cyber-stalked Leo to find out his real name (an act presented somewhere between innocuous curiosity and tender concern, rather than a deeply disturbing violation of trust and safety that, in the real world, has ruined and endangered sex workers' lives). She tells him he should reveal his job to his mother and he tells her that his mother is so ashamed of his career that she pretends he is dead. This is the emotional high point of the film and the closest thing it comes to presenting any character as an antagonist, suggesting that the greatest danger to the sex worker is not drugs or violence, but being misunderstood and judged by those outside of the sex market. This is a viciously dim-witted approach, bordering on the malicious: not only is it totally divorced from reality, it's is a particularly clever way of shutting down any discussion that might not support the films' tepid politics. Those who might find themselves opposed to Nancy and Leo's stances are not people concerned about the safety of sex workers or the inherently predatory nature of exchanging sex for money, but boring, moralistic prudes who are in fact solely responsible for any difficulties facing sex workers in society.
Sex work politics asides, the film makes some very lukewarm points about female sexuality and the radical notion that older women should be able to enjoy sex. This acts as a convincingly gossamer smoke-screen for the more nefarious political points being made and was the aspect most focused on by other reviewers. Of course it's more palatable to write about how "brave" Emma Thompson is for existing as a middle-aged woman, but it seems lazy to let a perfunctory shot of a naked 60 year old looking at her own vagina detract from more poignant political points (although, of course, we don't see McCormack's penis). The film still falls into the trap of presenting sexual pleasure as the ultimate goal of a woman's life, which once again is palatable within the idealised context of the film but carries unfortunate implications in the real world (Nancy achieves her elusive orgasm at the very end of the film without the aid of Leo, which I interpret as touting some sort of 'you don't need men to be complete' message - which seems a little specious when the entire film has revolved using its characters advocating for an industry that does little other than serve men).
Leo Grande is lucky. He is a strawman made of golden hay: the sex worker who is safe and healthy, who has chosen their career out of passion rather than necessity, who does not owe pimps or webcam companies money, who sleeps with clients that cannot physically overwhelm him or force him to do things he doesn't enjoy, and whose biggest problem is his mothers puritanism. Unluckily for all the other sex workers - the women forced into survival sex, the drug addicts taken advantage of by their communities, the human trafficking victims, or the girls doxxed by their ex-boyfriends or unwittingly made to sell sexual images of themselves to their own fathers - his situation is totally conducive to the liberal pro-sex purchasing politics that the film presents. Of course, Good Luck to You Leo Grande says, two consenting adults should be able to handle their money and bodies however they see fit. And within the idealised confines of a plush hotel room, with two softly-spoken characters with equalised power dynamics sipping champagne and timidly requesting tasteful sex acts, it's a message that seems hard to disagree with. Sadly though, the real world is not a movie set - and not every sex worker is as lucky as Leo Grande.